Rubes in Training

Students compete for the whackiest machine that can screw in a lightbulb.

By Jeffrey Kluger|Sunday, August 01, 1993
RELATED TAGS: GADGETS
If you’ve gone shopping any time in the last decade or two, you know that lately Yankee ingenuity has been getting a little less ingenious. In a global economy becoming ever more competitive, American products have fallen further and further behind the merchandise of most high-tech, cutting-edge countries--like Japan, Germany, Taiwan, Togo, Uzbekistan, and Western Samoa.

Most economists agree that the first sign of Yankee decline came more than 20 years ago, with the introduction of the Ford Pinto--a car whose imaginative Blows-Up-When-Hit-From-Behind option proved surprisingly unpopular with finicky consumers--and Chevrolet’s Chevette, a teensy-weensy economy car that doubled as an attractive tie tack. In subsequent years more and more American industries fell by the wayside, until, by the 1990s, the only piece of Yankee engineering to lead the world in innovation is the wildly successful SaladShooter, a product that has established U.S. dominance in the exciting field of ballistic vegetables.

All is not lost, however. If the United States can no longer build marketable machines, we can still, indisputably, build funny machines. Having long ago set the global standard for joy buzzer and light- up necktie technology, America has maintained its dominance in the merriment market with such innovations as IBM’s rib-ticklingly disastrous PC Junior and NASA’s sidesplitting blueprints for the space station Freedom. Recently the country took one more step toward ensuring its technologically frolicsome future, with this year’s edition of the National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Rube Goldberg, as you know if you ever opened a Sunday comics section during the first two-thirds of this century, was a cartoonist who became famous for drawing fantastically complicated machines that performed fantastically simple tasks. A typical Rube Goldberg device could not perform a job as straightforward as, say, turning on a faucet without the assistance of pulleys, relays, switches, cables, fulcrums, mousetraps, and, when necessary, actual mice. In an era like ours, in which just this kind of technology must be used to install and program a VCR, such cartoons have lost some of their appeal. In Goldberg’s era, however, things were simpler, and by the time the cartoonist retired, the term Rube Goldbergian had been enshrined in the language to describe anything characterized by excess complexity. (Such linguistic homage is a rare honor indeed, granted only by such terms as Stalinist, Orwellian, and the newly coined Clintonesque, which describes the act of running a large country while consuming your own body weight in Pop-Tarts.)

Since 1983 Purdue University and the Theta Tau engineering fraternity have held an annual contest in which engineering students from around the country invent Rube Goldberg-style machines to perform such tasks as unlocking a lock, sticking a stamp on a letter, and toasting a piece of bread. This year’s competition called for a gadget that could screw a light bulb into a working socket. Tired of seeing America take it on the chin from countries that wouldn’t know how to build a good whoopee cushion if you spotted them the whoop, I decided to visit Purdue and see for myself that the USA could still build the best darn hardy-har hardware anywhere in the world.

The Rube Goldberg contest was held in the Elliott Hall of Music on the Purdue campus. The six machines that had qualified for the finals were displayed along the edge of the stage and, to the lay eye, were utterly impossible to figure out. According to the contest rules, the designers could build their gizmos out of virtually anything, but the machines had to meet some specific requirements: each had to measure five feet by five feet by six feet; each had to include at least 20 steps before the light bulb was screwed in; each machine was permitted to include flying objects and other projectiles as long as they remained within the five-by- five-by-six boundaries; each had to have some theme or story tying the components together; and no machine was allowed to use combustible fluids or explosives. Near as I could tell, all the contraptions met these criteria, especially, I noted with some relief, the part about the combustibles.

More impressive to me than the look of the machines was the look of the students who had built them. When I was in college, during the mid- 1970s, few people I knew had the focus, discipline, or remaining EEG tracings to even consider becoming engineers. Most of our time was spent in darkened dorm rooms, listening to the Who at volumes that could cause tectonic plates to shift, while debating such topics as whether it was possible that Ringo was actually the walrus. By the time we graduated, we had done away with nearly all of the pesky brain tissue we had come to school with in the first place, limiting our engineering skills to such relatively low-tech tasks as driving to 7-Eleven to pick up more Ring- Dings.

The students here today, however, were a whole different breed. Hovering lovingly about their contraptions, they had the focused expressions of NASA gantry technicians moments before a launch. Of the six machines, the first to catch my eye was the one built by the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, the defending champion from last year. At a glance, Milwaukee’s machine was an absolutely incomprehensible array of pulleys, rails, cables, and tracks, as well as what appeared to be a collection of every stuffed animal or doll manufactured in the United States in the last 20 years, from Buzzy the Bee to Oscar the Grouch to Oscar the Clinically Depressed. The name of the machine, Rube’s Toyland, seemed more than apt.

Our machine is sort of my prodigy, said Spencer Koenig, the captain of the team. I came up with the toy theme, but all seven members of the team contributed. James was our relay master; Rick handled power; Matt grunted out the hardware.

I asked Spencer how the machine worked and, as I feared, he began by assuring me that it was actually pretty simple--a promise engineers always make just before they start speaking in tongues. Near as I could understand from his explanation, the contraption gets started with a ball bearing rolling down a chute, which sets into motion a chain of events in which one stuffed animal bumps into another stuffed animal, which swings to the other side of the machine on a trapeze, throwing a switch on a third, fourth, and fifth stuffed animal, which eventually phone out for a stuffed electrician to drop by and screw the light bulb in for them.

No fool, I could tell by the look on Spencer’s face that I didn’t quite get it yet, and that, with dozens of people clamoring to see his machine, he probably wished I’d get something else--like lost. Adjacent to Rube’s Toyland, I noticed the entry from Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, and immediately felt I’d have better luck with this one. Dubbed Fester’s Finaglers, the machine was designed around an Addams family theme, with accoutrements like guillotines, witch’s castles, beakers of bogus blood, and the occasional flapping bat. The Addams family is enormously popular with college students in the 1990s (a huge improvement over the 1970s, when it was the vastly more ghoulish Loud family), and a crowd formed around the Hofstra machine that would make Herman Munster green--or greener.

This is our first Rube Goldberg competition, said Hofstra junior Nick Croce, and we wanted to do something memorable. We’ve been at work on this for months, and we put it together with parts from practically everywhere. One of the motors was taken from an oscillograph built in the 1950s. One of the plastic animals was actually a toy one team member had in 1976, when he was five.

Nick did not attempt to explain to me how the Hofstra machine worked but instead handed me a sheet of paper with all 27 steps clearly spelled out. The list took some puzzling out, but as close as I could figure it, the contraption works this way:

The action begins when Gomez Addams, in the form of Nick or one of his Hofstra cohorts, pulls a tiny noose in one corner of the machine. The noose raises a barricade that sends a car speeding down a track. The car, equipped with a prong in front, pops a balloon which, when burst, slips through a ring that releases a toy guillotine. The guillotine blade falls onto a prone Pugsley doll, chopping off his head. The head rolls down a chute, landing on a switch that activates an elevator. The elevator rises and tips forward, releasing a ball that rolls down a track and lands between two relays, completing a circuit. The circuit triggers Spot the dinosaur (borrowed from the Munsters since the Addamses didn’t have a good pet, according to Nick). Spot walks into a toggle switch, turning on a pair of toy trains. The trains collide, causing one to roll off the track, fall into a basket, and depress a switch. The switch turns on a fan, which blows a magnetically levitated sail-car across a bridge. The car strikes a switch, releasing a plastic spider on a string. The spider falls, pulling a switch that releases marbles. The marbles trigger another fan, which rotates an Archimedes’ screw, which in turn pulls a string on a mousetrap. The snapping trap knocks a support bar out from underneath a can of fake blood, which spills into a funnel. The blood runs through a length of plastic tubing that spells out Hofstra, eventually draining into a jar filled with plastic eyeballs. The eyeballs rise, striking a switch, which activates a toy witch. The witch pivots slightly, pulling a cord on a rattrap. The trap causes a gun to fire a rubber dart at a series of tombstones, which topple domino-style, striking yet another mousetrap. The mousetrap snaps, pulling a cable that releases a dead bolt from a spring- loaded box. The lid of the box opens, and an arm and hand--the Addams family’s Thing--rises from it. Holding a light bulb, Thing begins rotating clockwise, rising toward a papier-mâché Uncle Fester head. When the bulb reaches Uncle Fester’s mouth, Thing screws it in and the light goes on.

Fester’s Finaglers had the look of a winner, and Nick was understandably pleased with it. According to rumors swirling around the contest, Pugsley-head technology had already been pirated by the Japanese and was even now being sold to countries throughout the Pacific Rim. For the Hofstra engineers, however, it was the eyeball-marinating jar that inspired the most pride. It took us a while to get just the right number of eyes, Nick said confidentially.

While the entries from the other four schools--Oakland University, Lawrence Technological Institute, Western Michigan, and sentimental-favorite Purdue--didn’t have the dazzle of Hofstra’s, all were impressive. The Lawrence students chose an Operation Desert Storm theme for their machine, and their contraption bristled with plastic missiles and other memorabilia from the Gulf War. For the most part, however, the crowd seemed to be giving the machine a pass, possibly because Operation Desert Storm has long been yesterday’s news (though a more topical reference, like Operation Comprehensive Health Care and Deficit Reduction, would probably have been less dramatic). Purdue selected a spy theme, in which the mission of the secret agents was to destroy missiles aimed at Purdue by the sinister organization Big Red, otherwise known as Purdue’s archrival, Indiana University. The Purdue students managed to incorporate a decapitated figurine of Bobby Knight, IU’s basketball coach, into the contraption. (It’s not absolutely necessary for contestants to decapitate Bobby Knight in their machine, the master of ceremonies informed the crowd, but it helps.) To its credit, Purdue was also the one school that managed to include female students on its team. The overconcentration of Y- chromosome contestants was a bit puzzling, since while the contest was sponsored by a fraternity, there certainly wasn’t any No Gurlz Allowed policy, and as far as I know, none of the female students from any of the schools had hired nannies and neglected to pay their social security.

When the crowds had a look at all the entries, the master of ceremonies called the event to order. There would be two runnings of the machines, but it would be the first one that would make the biggest impression on the judges. As it turned out, for most of the teams this was not good news. The Oakland, Western Michigan, and Purdue machines all got their bulbs successfully screwed in, but all took less than 15 seconds to complete the job. This was a tribute, of course, to how efficiently the machines were designed--something that earns you no points at all in a Rube Goldberg contest.

The real excitement began when Hofstra’s and Milwaukee’s entries started to roll. The Toyland machine was a dramatic, choreographed swirl of dolls and stuffed animals resembling less a Rube Goldberg machine than A Chorus Line with floppy ears and paw pads. The Addams family machine was even more impressive. As cinematic giants like Sam Peckinpah learned a generation ago, you can never go wrong with fake blood, and when the red food coloring began to run through the Hofstra tubing and trickle into the eyeball jar, the audience was on the edge of its seats. When Thing finally screwed the bulb into Uncle Fester’s mouth, the ovation could be heard in Indianapolis.

They really have us on theme, Spencer said disconsolately as he reset his Toyland components between rounds. It’s tough to compete with something as popular as the Addams family.

It’s that fake blood, grumbled junior John Cerone, across the stage with the Western Michigan team. It takes forever to flow through that tubing. Those guys really build the suspense.

In the second round the trend only continued, and the judges retired backstage for just a minute before returning with their decision: third place and $250 to Purdue; second place and $300 to Rube’s Toyland; and first place and $500 to Fester’s Finaglers of Hofstra.

No sooner were the kudos offered and the trophies distributed than the students in the 1993 Goldberg contest were talking about the 1994 edition. The next competition will be held at Purdue in early spring, and nearly all the contestants here vowed to be back--most of them promising to take a hint from Hofstra and model their inventions after one of this year’s popular movies (though if Hofstra itself chooses The Crying Game, I for one don’t want to see what part of the human anatomy emerges from its spring-loaded box).

The task next year is to invent a machine that can make a cup of coffee, but before the sponsors of the Goldberg contest take on any new challenges, perhaps they should try to perfect some of their stamp-licking or bread-toasting machines of past tournaments. What about a machine that can stick a postage stamp on an envelope and then see that the letter gets delivered within the half-life of a piece of uranium? What about a machine that can toast a slice of white bread and then keep it intact when you try to butter it with a pat of Land O Lakes that’s been refrigerated to the consistency of a Scrabble tile? A Goldberg gadget like these could be a gold mine. After all, there’s a rube born every minute.
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